Reading should be a family affair

But parents can’t help their children learn to read if they can’t read well themselves

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Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced a policy urging parents to read aloud to children from birth onward. The policy emphasizes multiple benefits, including enhanced brain development in children and closer parent-child relationships.

According to a national study, one in three American children enters kindergarten without the proper language skills. It may be difficult for those children to catch up to their peers as they continue in school. Early literacy development can prevent some of this deficit.

However, we have also learned that the child’s educational development depends to a great extent on the parents’ skills. The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher, and the child looks to his or her parent as a role model. We need to view literacy as a whole-family matter rather than teaching kids only.

Last November, we helped arrange a hearing of the state House Education Committee on adult literacy. There we heard that one in seven parents in Pennsylvania lacks the skills and confidence to read to a child. This is one reason why we advocate adult literacy programs.

What a shame that adults who want a basic education in our state often have not been able to acquire it. Reduced support for adult literacy and General Educational Development programs in Pennsylvania has caused enrollments in these programs to drop from 52,000 students in 2007 to 24,000 today. This is not because there is less need. In fact, 6,000 adults are on waiting lists for these programs. When parents can’t be educated, their children suffer direct consequences.

Talk to adult literacy students, as we have done, and you will find that the impact of their classes on the next generation is tremendous. When children see Mom or Dad doing homework, planning to attend college and taking education seriously, they take school seriously as well. Values are formed and shared in the context of a family.

By contrast, we have learned of many families where there is no history of any member completing high school, so children grow up believing that graduation is not important and that they have tacit permission to drop out. Families in poverty may not possess the same values around literacy as better-off families. To address this situation, we need to begin with the parents. Nothing less than direct instruction of skills for the parents will suffice.

So when we learned of the Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement, we wanted to say that the policy is missing one important piece of the puzzle. Doctors can hand out free books to children, they can encourage reading aloud, but they are forgetting the parents who don’t have good reading skills and can’t use these free materials.

Improved adult literacy would help not only the educational attainment of our children, but it also would improve the health and well-being of their families. Adults who gain literacy skills and receive a high school diploma or GED make more money and provide more opportunities for their children than peers who don’t gain these skills. As a side benefit, they save taxpayer dollars by leaving the welfare rolls, finding jobs and reducing unemployment compensation.

According to the National Center for Families Learning, parental involvement is a more significant factor in children’s academic performance than the qualities of their school. True parental involvement is possible when a parent has the advanced skills needed to understand homework assignments given to children and the confidence to communicate with teachers.

Another fact shared by NCFL is that a single year of parental education has a greater impact on the likelihood of a son or daughter attending a post-secondary institution than does $50,000 in annual parental income.

So, yes, parents should read to their children beginning at birth — and all parents who don’t have the skills to do so should have opportunities to learn them. Both of these are needed to ensure the success of Pennsylvania’s children.

Hal English, R-Hampton, represents the 30th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and is a member of the House Education Committee. Don Block is executive director of Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (

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